Israelis fire on Hizbollah as three die in Lebanon

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Guerrillas belonging to Hizbollah, the Islamic militant movement, killed three Israeli paratroopers and wounded seven in an ambush overnight just north of the zone held by Israeli forces in south Lebanon. In retaliation Israeli aircraft yesterday carried out 13 airstrikes and Israeli artillery fired 350 shells at Hizbollah targets.

The paratroop reconnaissance patrol was caught by surprise by the guerrillas, who opened fire at point-blank range with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades near the village of Kiliyah less than two miles from the Israeli headquarters at Marjayoun. Israel said two guerrillas were killed. The clash brings to nine the number of Israeli troops killed in Lebanon this year. The losses are not heavy, but they show that Hizbollah continues to be the most effective guerrilla force Israel has ever faced.

Although the fighting started in reaction to an Israeli operation, it took place as the Shiah Muslim community in Lebanon, from which Hizbollah draws its support, celebrated the death in battle of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, in 680AD.

Addressing a crowd of 75,000 people in Beirut, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader, said: "Any peace process that does not bring all of Palestine back to the Palestinians, all of the Golan Heights and all of south Lebanon, is an unfair peace process and a false one."

The government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, has continued the policy in Lebanon of the previous Labour administration since it took office almost a year ago. A unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the nine-mile-deep zone it holds in south Lebanon was advocated by some Israeli politicians after 73 soldiers were killed when two helicopters crashed into each other on the way to Lebanon in February. A further 27 Israeli soldiers were killed in action in Lebanon last year.

In the past, senior officials such as Dr Dore Gold, Mr Netanyahu's foreign affairs adviser, have advocated retaliating directly against Syrian positions in Lebanon after a Hizbollah attack. But Yitzhak Mordechai, the Defence Minister, and the army high command, are wary of further involvement in Lebanon.

Dennis Ross, the United States peace envoy, has failed to break the stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians and was scheduled to return to Washington yesterday. Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, rejected a proposal for a final meeting with Mr Ross, saying that he showed pro-Israeli bias.

Reuters - An Israeli newspaper yesterday reported that President Ezer Weizman had cut off contact with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over his attitude towards a peacemaking crisis with the Palestinians. "I have cut all contact with him. Bibi isn't ready to listen," Yedioth Ahronoth quoted Mr Weizman as saying.

However, Mr Netanyahu's spokesman, Shai Bazak, said of the report: "As far as I know that isn't true." Mr Weizman's spokesman was not available to comment last night.